The Regensburg incident

Pope Benedict’s unwise choice of citation from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Palaeologus has naturally upset many Muslims. That aside, the speech is well worth reading.

Take this:

This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.

Remember, this is a summary of a position he opposes – always a good test of a thinker.

As an academic paper, a lot of it is first-rate. (The nostalgic paean to the golden Humboldtian days of the German university in the 1950s confirms the theory that what turned Josef Ratzinger from the progressive young theologian of Vatican II to the reactionary head of the Holy Office was the trauma of May 1968, a huge, anomic, uncivil, irreverent, Dionysian outbreak among previously deferential and orderly students.)

But the Pope is a pastor first, and the opening example is provocative and superficial. Why choose a Muslim straw man? Why raise the hot-button issue of jihad, of Muslim violence, and then ignore it? By Benedict’s own account, Ibn Hazn’s positions are not recorded fully; the source for the dialogue is Byzantine, probably the Basileus himself. The Pope could at least have mentioned the Mughal Emperor Akbar, an enlightened rationalist who funded theological competition between the major religions.

A lot of modern Islam has regressed into anti-intellectualism. But then so has a lot of Christianity. The Pope does criticise the Reformers for dehellenizing the Gospels – but their project immediately opened up the Bible up to a far higher level of scholarly critique, starting with Melancthon; and the conflict led their successors to a claim for freedom of conscience that widened to secular science and politics. A much softer target would be contemporary American evangelical Christianity à la Bob Jones. In fact, there’s a worldwide, multifaith wave of fundamentalism among people who find it easier not to think.

One can only applaud the Pope’s emphasis on the concordance of reason and faith. He could apply it to the Vatican’s obscurantism on human sexuality and evolution by natural selection. But then, isn’t he its architect?

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

7 thoughts on “The Regensburg incident”

  1. The mix of Cartesianism and Platonism is a bit weird, too, since of course the two are quite different- I suppose both thought the world understandable via reason, but since they took the ultimate nature of the world to be vastly different things it seem an odd mix. (The anti-rationalism is really depressing, though.)

  2. It is historically true that Mohammed spread Islam by violence. Ratzinger ignored the fact that, for 1700 years, Christians have spread Christianity by violence. Who is more at fault: those who commit violence in accord with their leader's example, or those who commit violence in rebellion against their leader's example?

  3. He argues that we should "we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable". This seems like a straw man. You can have reasoned discussions about ethics that aren't based on empirically verifiable premises but are nevertheless productive.
    In so far as there's a conflict between faith and reason, the issues are:
    1) When religion makes faith-based claims about empiricially verifiable phenomena, such as evolution. In this case, the religion runs the risk of simply losing.
    2) When religious spokespeople make claims to having a particular authority on ethical issues, despite the fact that that authority is no more empirically verifiable than authority based on any other foundation.
    If he's arguing for a level playing field for all bases of belief, that's fine. But it seems like he's arguing that reason should give religion a free pass and that's wrong.

  4. Empiricism and the Pope constitute an interesting Empiricism and the Pope constitute an interesting intersection. If he believes he is what the church says he is, any comment based on reason or experience demonstrates his mendacity or hypocrisy. Infallibility should justify its own reality. To the perfect, reason is a game played by those who are not designated by Jesus as holding the "keys to the kingdom". Pretending to engage in intellectual discourse, for such an individual, is a pretense at best, a red herring at worst.

  5. I'm ignorant and dense, so the best I can make of the Pope's recent slam on Muslims is to notice that it comes 6 weeks before a crucial U.S. election.

  6. The thing that gets me is that the controversial passage is completely tangential to the discussion of faith and reason: "The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable," and the Pope, after having tossed out so forceful a quotation asserting the worthlessness of the Prophet's teachings, goes on in a completely different direction.
    I also note that His Holiness in no way relied on quotations — this is the only one of more than a few words (excepting one verse of Scripture) until the last paragraph. This one is a definite break from his basic style.
    Could the man who wrote that lecture have inserted that wholly irrelevant quotation (for the sole purpose, it seems, of supporting Benedict's characterization of the emperor as "brusque" — although if the characterization is at all apt, I'm sure other quotations would have given the flavor) without a clue as to its likely effect on a global audience?
    The quotation is a gratuitous detour in a mostly straightforward essay. I think he did it on purpose.
    (and to Jim Corbett: As I understand it, infallibility applies only to specifically designated proclamations made by the Pope. In his everyday activities, there is no doubt that he is fallible.)

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